Church of St. Mary of Zion

Attraction in Aksum

Opposite the Northern Stelae Field in a walled compound lie the two St Mary of Zion Churches.The rectangular old church is a remarkable example of traditional architecture and was built by the Emperor Fasiladas, the founder of Gonder, in 1665. It's thought that the old podium on which it sits may well belong to Africa's first church, which was erected by King Ezana or King Kaleb in the 4th or 6th century. Unfortunately, the original church was destroyed during the incursions of Mohammed Gragn the Left-Handed in 1535. Inside there are fine murals, including a painting of the Nine Saints and a collection of ceremonial musical instruments. A carefully guarded chapel in the church compound is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant. Don't think you can take a peek: just one specially chosen guardian has access to the Ark. And many the unfortunate onlooker has 'burst into fire' just for getting close! The little museum in the same building contains an unsurpassed collection of former Ethiopian rulers' crowns. Neither the chapel nor the museum is open to women, but some of the crowns can be brought out by obliging priests; you should tip them afterwards. The chapel isn't always open; try and get here early in the morning. The huge new church of St Mary of Zion was built in the 1960s and displays Haile Selassie's usual unusual taste. We've previously awarded it the 'hideous carbuncle' prize, but we'll be kinder this time around. It does cut a dramatic silhouette on the skyline when viewed from the Yeha Hotel at sunset. Beside it, a disproportionately tall bell tower, shaped to resemble the biggest stele of all, sprouts heavenwards.